Facing My Fear At The Bottom Of The Ocean: Becoming Open Water Certified
Go diving they said. It will be fun they said.
That was my mindset as I started my decent to 10 feet underneath the ocean. I was having a bitch of a time equalising. My mask kept on flooding and before I knew it I was having a mild panic attack. I started to forget to breath through my regulator. I wasn't doing a good job at clearing my mask or staying calm.
In the moment when my Dive Instructor took me back to the surface, I was ready to throw in the towel.
"Fuck it. It's only 9 000 baht down the drain. This shit is not fun."
But then I remembered why I wanted to get my Open Water Qualification in the first place. I wanted to dive with sharks. I wanted to overcome my fear of these misunderstood creatures and see them in their natural environment sans a cage.
I remembered how far I had come to get to this moment of me freaking out in the middle of the Thailand Gulf.
During my teen years, the ocean and I didn't have a good relationship. When I was 14, I was swimming in the ocean with my dad and got knocked over by a wave. This wave was followed by another and another until my dad had to eventually pull me out.
When I was 16, I went swimming with my step brother in the ocean. I got caught in a rip current and had to rely on the kindness of strangers to form a human chain to pull me out because I am a shit swimmer and the lifeguard wasn't keen on doing his job.
I had also watched the movie Jaws like so many other people. I had an irrational fear of sharks in pools and soon developed one for water that wasn't 100% transparent. For the next couple of years, I avoided going into the ocean at all costs.
All that changed when I moved down to Cape Town in 2014 and started meeting divers and people who loved sharks. I started learning about shark fining, the cons of cage diving and most importantly about the true nature of one of world's "scariest mammals."
This all prompted me to set into motion a series of events to get over my fear of the ocean to force myself to confront my fears.
It started with me swimming in Cape Town's freezing Atlantic waters, collecting all my courage to jump off a boat in Mozambique to snorkel with dolphins and it finally lead me to attempting to become Open Water Certified.
Descending to the ocean floor
After taking a few deep breaths on the surface and mentally preparing myself, I decided to attempt the descent once again. This time I went much slower and didn't try keep up with everyone else in my group. I equalized more frequently and managed to clear my mask without any further hassles.
Before I knew it, I was kneeling on the ocean floor.
To my left was a coral reef. A freaking coral reef. For some reason I was more excited about that then all the fish swimming past me. As we glided over the reef, I searched for any trace of coral bleaching and wished I had better control over my buoyancy to get an even closer look at all the cool plants growing around the reef.
Underwater Skills Test
We finally arrived to a spot on the ocean floor where we all knelt down in a circle to begin our skills test. I would be lying if I said I wasn't feeling anxious again, but I did my best not freak myself out. Instead I focused on counting all the curious fish that were swimming around me as I waited for my turn.
I'm pleased to say that I passed all my skills on the first try. I successfully cleared my flooded mask, lost and found my regulator, cleared it without forgetting to breathe and remembered all the hand signals to ask my buddy to share air with me.
I started to feel more and more confident as the dive went on and soon started to enjoy the dive.
The Open Water Dive Sites in Koh Tao
Dive 1: Japanese Gardens
Our first dive was at one of Koh Tao's most famous dive sites, the Japanese Gardens. The reef is located just off the beautiful Koh Nangyan, which is known for its formation of three small islands joined by a sand bar. The dive site gets its name from the hundreds of hard and soft coral formations that create the impression of an oriental Japanse Garden.
We dived to a depth of 9.4 meters and had 8 meters of visability. There were tons of common marine life species such as butterfly fish, angel fish and long-fin banner fish. I was hoping to see the territorial triggerfish but managed to see a Banded Sea Snake instead!
Dive 2: The Twins
The Twins is also another popular dive site just off the the coast of Koh Nang Yuan. Many claim that the dive site got its name for the two nearly identical rock formations sitting next to each other. The pinnacles attract a variety of marine life such as Butterfly Fish, Angel fish, Blue spotted stringrays, White eyed Moray eels and Nemos!
For this dive, we went a little bit deeper reaching a depth of 11.9m with 8 meters of visability again.
Dive 3: Chumpton Pinnacle
Chumpton Pinnacle is the dive site that everyone wants to go to when they dive in Koh Tao. In fact, it was so hyped up that our group decided to film our third dive at this site. Although not common, this is the site you want to visit to spot Whale Sharks. The gentle giants are usually in the area between February and May.
While exploring this dive site, we came across a pinnacle covered in beautiful pink anemones and glided past a massive school of Bat Fish. We even saw a couple of Giant Groupers!
This was my deepest dive yet! We reached a depth of 18 meters and had 12 meters of viability. Yet, this was also one of my shortest dives. We surfaced after a short 25 minutes as we all went through our air a lot faster by showing off for the camera.
Dive 4: White Rock
My final dive in Koh Tao was at White Rock located south of Koh Nang Yuan. The dive site consists of two large rock boulders and a shallow coral garden.
We dived to almost 14 meters and spent 35 minutes exploring this underwater paradise. Our Dive Instructor also let us practice our compass skills here. I'm fairly confident if left to my own devices, I'd get lost in the ocean within a blink of an eye.
Ascending to the Ocean Surface
The ascent unfortunately was not something I enjoyed. My nose bled each time that I came up, no matter how slowly I asended to the surface.
Throughout my dives, I had problems with my buoyancy and when I thought I finally had it under control, I ended up ascending by mistake during the safety stop. I'm not sure what happened. I was doing my best to stay down, but I kept on floating up. Instead of panicking again and struggling to stay down, I decided to just go with it and ascend as slowly as I could manage.
At this point, I was nervous that I was going to fail my Open Water, but part of me was relieved to be on the surface again.
My Final Thoughts on Scuba Diving
While I passed my Open Water and enjoyed exploring the coral reefs, I am still in two minds about how I feel towards scuba diving.
My bottom times for all 4 dives were between 25 to 40 minutes, and I found that way to long for me. Even though Thailand's waters are warm and I had a wet suit on, I started shivering early on. That alone just made me want to get out the water because I hate being cold.
The descent and ascent were rough on my ears compared to everyone else in the group. My nose bleeding every time I ascended didn't help either but maybe I can use it to my advantage to attract sharks?
I have all the jokes.
In my group video below, you can see how stressed I am even before we get into the water. The whole experience was a mixture of me feeling traumatised, stressed and in awe at the same time.
While I do think I will try diving a few more times, I don't know if I'll be up to doing my Advanced anytime soon. But I am going to suck it up and keep pushing myself until I see a shark. And once I see that shark, I'm going to keep seeing sharks until I stop shitting my pants.
Have You Got Your Open Water Qualification? How Was Your Experience?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Lauren! I'm passionate about inspiring young South Africans to travel for less and sharing my experiences and how to navigate the endless visa paperwork along the way. When I'm not busy preparing for the inevitable zombie apocalypse, I'm having a travel fail somewhere and geeking out in countries all over the world. Connect with me on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat!